A piece of polemic which some people may violently disagree with
My next-door neighbour’s wife died at about this time last year. She was my neighbour too, of course; but her long illness meant that I’d barely met her. I knew that she was lovable only from the way he talked about her. While she was alive, though she could barely respond to him, there was still something he could do for her. Then there wasn’t.
I wish, for his sake, that the air was not so thickly dreich – it wasn’t cold last year, either, as you may remember – and that the winking Christmas lights in the houses across the road did not keep their vigil so unceasingly. I don’t want to be reminded of last year because I don’t want him to be. The days from Christmas to New Year, however, are of all dates in the year the ones most loaded with significance, and therefore they are unforgettable; so I fear they will never be the same again for him.
We can’t, and we shouldn’t, try to excise all negative memories from our lives. They are part of what shapes us. And trying to push them out of our consciousness might cause more problems than it solves. That said, I think that consciously keeping negative anniversaries is a bad idea.
The greatest example of this is Remembrance Day. I’m not going to argue that Remembrance Day has failed because war and conflict have continued over the past hundred years. Stephen Pinker argues that the present time is probably the most peaceable age the human species has ever experienced. I am, however, going to argue that this has not occurred because of Remembrance Day, but despite it.
It would, surely, have been psychologically impossible for a society traumatised by the First World War to have considered the idea that the slaughter of their young men had been unnecessary or futile. (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that I think I know that World War I could have been averted, or that I know what would have happened had it not occurred.) Remembrance Day had to be, as it has been ever since, an exercise in referring to war in heroic terms. “The ultimate sacrifice,” say war memorials across the country. “Greater love hath no man.” The messy and unwilling deaths of conscripts barely out of childhood were transformed into a positive act on their part; and, as the trauma of direct loss has faded out of memory, that is the way it has been repeated ever since. Because we still believe that injured soldiers are by definition “heroes”, some of us can almost believe that there must be some inherent virtue in conflict. Thus, this country intervened in Syria even though there was considerable doubt over whether the specific actions proposed would do any good. The doctrine of heroism does not require a heroic act to do any good, as long as it’s done with the best of intentions.
Meanwhile, governments in Europe have stopped fighting one another – well, literally, at any rate – because governments who have a welfare state to keep up, and an economy to protect, find it hard to justify the diversion of massive sums in order to kill people and disrupt markets. That is, it is the real version of warfare, not the hallowed, remembered version that we are put off by.
The other situation in which recalling negative events is fetishised is in the realm of talking therapies. Now I am not by any means contesting the idea that unpleasant experiences have significant psychological effects, nor that discussing the former may help to resolve the latter. I certainly don’t want to be unfair towards the psychological profession, which contains many wise and thoughtful people. However, at a time when I was rather emotionally vulnerable I did spend a few sessions with a counsellor who, in good faith, really wanted me to dwell on the negatives of my (really very happy) childhood. I always left in floods of tears. If she had asked me to tell her some happy memories I could have convulsed myself with laughter. Eventually she decided I was too much of a hard nut to crack.
Of course, had my childhood been traumatic it would have been appropriate for her to have coaxed me to discuss it. But in that circumstance, surely, the memories of that trauma, however repressed, would still be active. Likewise, Remembrance Day in 1919 was a solace for the survivors, and relatives of the victims, of a national catastrophe whose effects were still painful and vivid. People did not need a special day to prompt them to remember the war. People needed a special day to acknowledge the fact that they were remembering it already. Nor would the mourners at any memorial service have actually forgotten the subject of it since his or her death.
Facebook has for some time been in the habit of inviting its members to “share a memory” (by which they mean “photo”) from one or more years previously. I imagine that it’s assumed that people will, by and large, have memorialised the positive elements in their lives, because we all curate our public images assiduously these days to present positive versions of ourselves to the world (and those who don’t, I’d guess, are the ones most successful at presenting a positive version of themselves to themselves). Nonetheless, people complain, every now and then, that Facebook has reminded them of a bereavement or a broken friendship – which supports my assertion that, once a negative occurrence has faded from immediate memory, being made to recall it by anniversaries can be a harmful thing.
Let’s not forget, also, that an anniversary is not what it commemorates. There is the stereotype of the hapless husband who forgets his wedding anniversary and risks the wrath of his wife, who accuses him of having ceased to love her. But we know, don’t we? that her accusation, on these grounds alone, is false. This is a comic stereotype. The husband has forgotten, not the wife herself, but a symbolic commemoration of a symbolic ceremony. We know that that is forgivable – that absolute reverence is not required.
When I die, of course, I want there to be a memorial ceremony, orchestrated or otherwise. I’d like those who regret my passing to show up with some drinks and sing, possibly for more than one night, as I have seen done for others. However, the following year, as much as I like the idea of being recalled to mind every now and then, in connection with a song, an event or a place, I’d rather the date of my death were absolutely forgotten. I would rather be remembered positively than negatively – rather be remembered for having lived, than for having died.